Meet the academic: Professor Ian Walker
Professor Ian Walker, Professor of Environmental Psychology, reveals why he became a psychologist, the highlight of his career and gives advice to prospective students.
Please could you introduce yourself?
My name is Ian Walker and I’m a Professor of Environmental Psychology at Surrey. I specialise in the psychology of traffic safety – especially for cyclists and motorcyclists – and behaviours that have environmental consequences like travel and energy and water consumption.
Something that isn’t on my staff profile is that this last year has been a time of huge personal upheaval: I’ve moved to the University of Surrey, got married and got a German Shorthaired Pointer puppy. The dog is almost certainly the biggest challenge of the three.
Why did you become a psychologist?
Going into psychology was a really unexpected move. It was the weakest of my subjects at A-level, but this made me really question myself to make sure that it was the subject that excited me the most. Almost at once, it felt like studying psychology was giving me insights into why the world around me looked the way it did.
I was initially very focused on speech, language and memory: these are all things that I use literally every day, and I loved getting a better understanding of how they worked. Later, I made the decision that I wanted to use my skills to solve practical problems, so moved into the road safety and sustainability, fields that I work in today.
How did you become a psychologist?
I completed a BSc in Psychology at York and then was lucky enough to go straight into studying for a PhD in the same department, where I learnt the skills of being a researcher. From there it was a year working as a research associate in Germany and then I landed my first permanent job as a lecturer.
Once you qualified, where did your career take you and were there any highlight moments?
Perhaps the most exciting and unusual career highlight was when we booked a racetrack and I spent the day blasting around it on a motorbike with a team of engineers urging me to go faster and faster. It was part of a project on how wind noise affects riders’ hearing, and so I got to stick tiny microphones in my ears and be the project’s stuntman. There can’t be many experimental psychologists who’ve been paid to ride a motorcycle at 120 miles per hour.
How and why did you become an academic?
I kind of fell into it without thinking, really. I loved university, being a student, and I think after finding that I felt so at home in university settings it was natural that I’d find a way to stay there.
What excites you most about your current role?
I’m now the Head of the Department of Psychological Sciences. The exciting – and daunting – part of this role is that I get to help dozens of other psychologists in this department become better at what they do.
What is your specific area of expertise, and why are you passionate about it?
I split my research efforts across a few areas, including energy consumption, water consumption and travel behaviour. But the bit I’m most passionate about is the psychology of traffic safety. What motivates me here is the scale of road death – almost all of which is caused by human behaviour and decisions. Each year, people driving motor vehicles kill 1.3 million people around the world, and seriously injure millions more. Our society’s addiction to driving kills this many people in a way that is both needless and easily prevented. In addition, our roads are set up in such a way that the dangers are all disproportionately placed on the most vulnerable members of society. It’s these injustices that really get me going in the morning.
Describe psychology in three words (or one sentence)
Understanding everyday life.
Why should people study psychology?
For me, it was about getting insights into why the world around me looked the way it did. For others, it might be that they want a great versatile degree that sets them up for a broad range of careers.
What are you looking for in a psychology student?
We don’t have a single, ideal student in mind. We want variety! Perhaps above all what we look for is people who are engaged, interested and interesting.
Do you have any advice for prospective psychology students?
Psychology is incredibly broad, so there’s almost certainly more to it than you currently think. In our School we’ve got people who work on brain imaging and people who work in mental health (as you might expect), but we’ve also got people who work on long-term health conditions, gender, and the life-enhancing properties of plants. The discipline is so broad, I’d suggest people come into it with an open mind. Experience as much of it as possible and wait to see what grabs you.